Senate Republicans delivered a sharp rebuke to President Obama on Thursday when they began an unprecedented filibuster of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense.
The confirmation process stalled when GOP senators deprived Hagel of the 60 votes needed to move it to its final stages. Republicans said they were seeking a delay so they could look more closely at the nominee.
Both sides still think the former GOP senator from Nebraska will be confirmed, but the filibuster brought condemnations from Obama and Senate Democrats, who decried it as partisan obstruction.
The move was one more signal of how times have changed in the once-clubby Senate. Democrats say they think some senior Republicans facing re-election in 2014 are so fearful of conservative primary challenges that they will ignore the bipartisan traditions of the Senate to be more in line with junior GOP senators elected on the strength of tea-party affiliations. The result is that hoped-for bipartisan deals on such issues as immigration and budget matters could be harder to reach.
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“It’s just unfortunate that this kind of politics intrudes at a time when I’m still presiding over a war in Afghanistan and I need a secretary of defense who is coordinating with our allies,” Obama said Thursday in an online forum hosted by Google.
“What seems to be happening, and this has been growing over time, is the Republican minority in the Senate seems to think that the rule now is that you need to have 60 votes for everything. Well, that’s not the rule.”
Republicans denied their actions constituted a filibuster because they expect Hagel to be confirmed and insisted they will allow a simple majority vote on the nomination this month.
They said they stalled the nomination because they want more information about Hagel, including foreign-policy speeches he delivered and his work with private investment groups.
The clash marked an escalation in nomination wars dating to the 1980s, crossing into an area that has most retained an aura of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill: national security.
The Hagel fight also demonstrated the depth of Republican concerns about the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Several GOP senators initially said they wanted more information about the attack in exchange for approving the nomination.
Such demands are not uncommon, but usually they involve delaying confirmation for lower-level posts while senators seek information or rulings on regulations from the White House.
“This isn’t high school … we’re trying to confirm somebody to run the defense of our country, the military of our country,” an angry Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday.
The official tally was 58 votes to end the filibuster to 40 against doing so, but 59 initially backed Hagel because Reid changed his vote to no so he could use parliamentary rules to quickly reconsider the nomination. Four Republicans — Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — joined all 54 members of the Democratic caucus in voting to end the filibuster.
Another Hagel vote is scheduled for Feb. 26, when the Senate returns from a 10-day break. That vote is also likely to require 60 votes to move to confirmation.
Senior Republicans said their blockade probably will be over by then and they will allow confirmation at some point.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has deputized Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as the weather vane by which to judge when Republicans should yield on the filibuster. That has, at times, made it difficult to discern the party’s position.
On Monday, when some GOP strategists were pondering a walkout of the Armed Services Committee’s consideration of Hagel, McCain issued a statement declaring that the nominee “has fulfilled the rigorous requirements that the committee demands” and that he deserves a committee vote.
During Tuesday’s committee hearings, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, demanded more information on Hagel’s speeches, suggesting the nominee could have received money from nefarious sources such as North Korea. That prompted McCain to lecture Cruz that “no one on this committee at any time should impugn his character or his integrity.”
By Tuesday night, after voting against Hagel in committee, McCain joined Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., in writing the White House, threatening to filibuster unless more information about the Benghazi attack was released.
The White House wrote to the senators Thursday telling them Obama had spoken to the Libyan president the evening after the attack, not the day it occurred.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did little to hide his frustration about Hagel’s beleaguered nomination Thursday, what was supposed to be his last day on the job. Hosting former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Pentagon, Panetta said he was counting the days to fly home to California. After calling Clinton’s visit a “great Valentine’s Day present,” Panetta said one additional item was on his wish list.
“The second-best Valentine’s present would be to allow Sylvia and I to get the hell out of town at the end of the day,” he said, referring to his wife.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.